Despite its image of being the most welcoming football league there is, a recent incident has opened a dialogue in the J-League about racism not just in the sport but in the whole country as well. A “Japanese only” banner aimed at foreign supporters unveiled at a recent Urawa Reds match has club and league officials scrambling to address the issue of racism and xenophobia in the league .
The incident cost Urawa an unprecedented one-game supporter ban for its next match by the league. While the heavy sanction on the team is yet to sink in, one supporter justified the racial slur as done out of ignorance and not to cause offense. The fan, who refused to be named said, “I don’t think the fans who put that banner out realized how seriously it would be taken.” Also adding that, “A lot of people in that supporter’s group just think it’s something that’s cool.” The club has since prohibited members of the supporter’s group who put up the banner from watching their matches indefinitely. They have also banned the use of flags and banners for an indefinite period for its matches in response to the sanction it received. A statement from the Urawa team management said, “The club recognizes that due to the occurrence of the severe instances of discriminatory behavior on top of several incidents of trouble caused by its supporters, it now faces a severe crisis in which it may lose its raison d’etre as a member of the J-League and as a sports club.”
The incident came weeks after Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan joined Cerezo Osaka, which earned the league positive publicity. Mitsuru Murai, chairman of the J-League said, “Given the media exposure over the Internet over the past few days, the global ramifications of this incident have stretched beyond our imagination.” He also expressed concern that the incident has affected the image of the league and Japanese football itself in a very negative manner. S-Pulse’s manager Afshin Ghotbi, who experienced racist remarks directed at him before, lauded the league’s executives for addressing the matter immediately. “This time the new chairman has stood strong and made it clear that there is no tolerance for racist attitudes,” he noted.